Politikkas blue and green

Political observers are fond of citing an oft-repeated quote, frequently attributed to a rumbustuous southern politician who acknowledged his own weaknesses in an election poster proclaiming ``ooth balla, mooth balla, apita hondai gamey balla.’’ While the pithy flavour of the original Sinhala is not adequately translatable, what it says is that while both candidates are canines, the voter would prefer the village dog! Such voter attitudes seem to be the logic that many of our politicians live by. They are too well aware that their electors know all about their many weaknesses, particularly the penchant to live it up on public funds whatever side they belong to, but they are reasonably sure that they will be re-elected to carry on regardless. The proportional representation system of elections well serves such continuity.

Readers of The Island last week were treated to some gems about how the elected representatives of the people serve themselves. One story spoke of a cool three million bucks that will be spent to repair Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara’s undoubtedly opulent limousine while a second exposed a proposal before the House Committee of compensating families or MPs dying of natural causes while they are Members of the House! The figure mentioned, believe it or not, was a cool five million! We do not grudge the much traveled Speaker, luxuriously accommodated in an opulent official mansion, his creature comforts. You can’t expect the man to get down and push the car if it stalls on Parliament Drive or anywhere else. Repairs to the type of vehicles our political VIPs ride don’t come cheap and we are sure that the relevant parliamentary votes are sufficiently funded to meet such exigencies. No matter. But compensating families of MPs dying in harness takes not just the cake but the whole bakery!

Time was when our MPs served their electors for a modest allowance of first Rs. 600 and then Rs. 750 and no pension. Public servants did get pensions from British times but MPs, despite the legislative power they wielded, did not seek to be similarly served. They came to parliament in their own cars with some from far away using the train on railway warrants provided. Duty free private vehicles were unheard of in those days for anybody from the prime minister downwards. Some MPs like the LSSP leader, Dr. N.M. Perera, who had long served the legislature with distinction and was not particularly well endowed privately, advocated pensions for MPs. Few would have grudged politicians like NM that. Selectively awarding pensions to some and not to others is obviously impossible and when the MPs did get their pensions, it was stipulated that a minimum of five years service in the legislature was necessary for the entitlement. Although MPs, unlike public servants, do not contribute towards widows and orphans pension benefits after their death, the parliamentary pension scheme was later extended to cover MPs’ widows free, gratis and for nothing. Like the camel that first poked its head into the Arab’s tent, the MPs have learned to go the whole hog. Privileges have over time been slowly and insidiously extracted with parliamentary pensions today not related to what an MP drew in office but to emoluments being paid to current incumbents.

Readers would be aware that families of politicians who died in terrorist attacks have been generously compensated by the state on a scale far superior to what an ordinary serviceman dying in action receives. The perks of both elected and bureaucratic office have grown exponentially over the years and today amounts to a tidy packet. Duty free facilities including vehicle permits have been freely dispensed to our legislators and few, if any, can claim like the UNP’s deputy leader, Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, that he or she had not availed themselves of such advantages. As we report in our front page today, Jayasuriya had opted to forego as many as six or seven such permits. He, no doubt, is a puduma satha in our political firmament like the late Mr. Gamini Jayasuriya who resigned his ministry as well as his parliamentary seat and went home when he could not agree with the Indo – Lanka Agreement of President J.R. Jayewardene.

We hope the House Committee will have the sense not to proceed with the proposal to give a handout to the families of MPs who die in harness. Perhaps the demand arose from the fact that families of public servants dying in office receive an year’s salary. But public servants, unlike MPs, don’t get pensions after the completion of a mere five years service. Nor are their pensions related to the salaries drawn by the present holders of the jobs they did at retirement. While we have no doubt that most MPs, whether they belong to the government or opposition, will make common cause in matters that benefit themselves, there must be a sense of proportion. That, unfortunately, is sadly lacking. Leaders who should set good examples and rein-in their flocks running wild are too often prone to look the other way. Scant notice is taken, if at all, of public opinion on matters such as these. The fat rent allowances drawn from the public purse by many ministers living in their own homes is a case in point.

Public apathy is one reason why elected officials can get away with virtual blue murder. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama who was in Kenya with his family last week had visited the Masai Mara National Park, a foreign ministry news release said. While we will not criticize the minister taking in a national park while on official business, we can only hope that the taxpayer did not foot the bill for a family junket. Hopefully, the minister and his family enjoyed the hospitality of the Kenyan government and we Lankans did not have to pick up the tab. Given Bogollagama’s track record in these matters, the majority will be unlikely to give him the benefit of the doubt. But we tilt with the minority because we do not think that the foreign ministry will officially refer to a family visit to a national park if the defences were less than iron clad. On the other hand, given the officially sanctioned profligacy we see around us while ordinary people struggle to make ends meet in the teeth of an ever-spiraling cost of living, anything is possible.

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